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  • Kalyn McCall

Railroads, Hoboes, and Jim Crow: Black Vagrancy

Santa Fe Depot, Santa Ana, 1911 [Photo courtesy Orange County Archives]

In the late nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth, Southern California experienced an expansion of transcontinental, interstate, and interurban railroads. For African Americans, the growth of the rails could provide unique opportunities to start over in the West. In 1880, Los Angeles saw an increase in black settlers as rail workers chose to lay roots after the completion of the Santa Fe Railroad. By 1887, Santa Fe constructed a line through the Santa Ana Canyon from San Bernardino in the East to Orange, and then from Santa Ana heading south to San Juan Capistrano. Lines connecting Los Angeles and Orange abounded with terminuses in Orange, Buena Park, Santa Ana, Fullerton, and Anaheim.

Working on the rails may have provided an opportunity for some, but riding the rails posed a great risk. As the United States moved further away from the Civil War, Reconstruction gave way to the system of Jim Crow - a codified system of racial segregation and discrimination. Even before the war, black abolitionists recalled the sting of Northern attitudes toward race and the experience of intolerance on the rails. Some, such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, experienced segregated railways as they relished their first moments of freedom. Others, like Ida B. Wells, saw intolerance on these lines as a dark sign of what to come at a time in which the first generations of black Americans were born free. Jim Crow was upheld by law, by tradition, and by the efforts of vigilante organizations. With the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision in 1896, the Supreme Court established the doctrine of separate but equal, solidifying sites of travel as key battlegrounds in the enforcement of Jim Crow.

Often overlooked in the history of African Americans in Orange County is the history of black vagrants or hobos. In the years following the Civil War, black vagrancy consumed many Southern legislatures, becoming regulated and controlled through the passage Black Codes. Given the breadth of agricultural pursuits, vagrancy in California was in no way limited to black Americans, but the way vagrancy laws were enacted and targeted against them deserves closer inspection. Histories of black settlers in California often privilege the lives of the middle class, giving very little attention to migrant black labor. Since California employers were not dependent on black workers, these workers had a great possibility of suffering from chronic employment. These types of sojourners did not leave much behind, left out of property records, or the school census. They were not a part of black social circles or amusing locale figureheads. With no familial connections, social networks, or guaranteed employment, the only thing assured was the threat of unemployment and experience with the criminal justice system. With no place to go but drawn to agricultural regions for work, black migrants were criminalized under anti-vagrancy laws - targeting the unemployed, homeless, and itinerant and typically aimed at racialized others - and susceptible to encounters with police.

Particularly in the 1890s after the completion of the Sante Fe and Southern Pacific Railroads, vagrancy and concerns about hoboes consumed the Southland. Around that time, Orange County residents decided to reshape the landscape, clean up, and regrade the streets. Chinese and indigenous labor had completed most of the ditch digging and irrigation work during the settlement period, but with American encroachment and growing anti-Chinese sentiment, Orange County did not believe they had enough of a labor force to complete the work. The situation changed, however, when “hordes of ‘hoboes’ infested the town.” With permission from the Board of Supervisors, the sheriff put them to work, raiding the railroad depots daily, rounding up those found, and, for those unable to pay their fines, putting them in ball and chains to work on the roads. When reporting on the vagabonds, local papers took the time to highlight the race of those put to work. Relaying a story from the Santa Ana Standard, The LA Times reported an incident of Officer Tom Hull going to the jail to address fifteen vagrants. After getting permission from the Board of Supervisors to put them to work, he addressed them, “Fellow tramps and free voters of California. We are met today in fraternal peace and harmony to devise ways and means to ameliorate the condition of mankind. I know your troubles in this wicked would. It is a fear of work and a scarcity of grip. I propose to educate you to fear the first and doubt the latter. Follow me, and lo! I will be with you even unto the digging of the deep ditch on Main Street.” Accordingly, the article reported, emphasis added, “The vags set up a yell of delight, except one worthless negro, who was too aristocratic to labor for a white government. Tom adorned his ankles with a ball and chain and told him to stay in his cell and devote his hours to repentance.”

As stories of hobos and vagabonds filled the pages of local news, special attention was given to black travelers who had the audacity to try to land there. Some vagrants did not have the opportunity to be put to work upon capture and instead were run out of town under threat of violence as vigilante committees patrolled the railways. When a negro named R. Smith was found in Santa Ana’s train depot, “Marshal Nichols gave him 15 minutes to leave town in, but three minutes were all required.” Two negroes, referred to as “Blackie No. 1” and “Blackie No. 2” were escorted by officers to the railway station, heading in the direction of Los Angeles. Others tried to resist their sentences, believing their punishments unjust. When William Griffith, “the descendent of Ham” was informed that he was to be imprisoned and put to work on the roads, he refused and was subsequently booked into the county dungeon. Later the local papers reported that after a period of solitary confinement, Griffith agreed to the labor, becoming a “valued member of the chain gang breaking rock, but he wears a ball and chain.” In some cases, black vagrants were given extreme sentences for misdemeanor crimes, guaranteeing free labor for the county. John Little, a negro vagrant apprehended in Fullerton, was sent to jail to serve a ninety-day sentence for stealing a bicycle.

One arrest of note occurred in November of 1895. William Dunn, “a festive young negro,” was arrested in Santa Ana on suspicion of burglary. When he was taken before Justice of the Peace Freeman, he shocked his spectators, giving “the court and audience such an argument such a surprise that they were almost dumbfounded.” The article reported: “He talked fluently as to his rights as an American citizen to walk the public highways of this glorious republic as a free man, and when the Judge intimated that he would probably be sentenced as a ‘vag,’ he demanded a jury trial, which as a matter of course, was not granted. He seemed so particularly anxious to get out of the clutches of the law that the officers deemed it advisable to put him back in jail, and have him wait at least a day or two more until his ‘rights as an American citizen,’ etc., can be examined into.” Plessy vs. Ferguson would be decided the following year.

In a rare account, Dunn entered the historical record making a firm declaration of his right to travel as an American citizen and his fear of an unjust legal system, only to be mocked by those who heard him. Regrettably, these black migrant laborers left few records, even less than Orange County’s early black settlers. But their appearances highlight the precarity of travel and settlement to the region. Without somewhere to land - be it a family member or social network - black sojourners were susceptible to charges of vagrancy, regardless of their intention in the area. The experiences of these black travelers would be mirrored by those of successive generations trying to start anew in the Southland. Orange County’s pioneer black communities, like those elsewhere in the state, tended to be middle-class elites, in large part because there was no place for a black working class.

Southern Pacific Depot, Santa Ana, circa 1887 [Photo courtesy Orange County Archives]

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